Hester's Bluff and St. Johns Town

William Hester acquired 300 acres at what is today known as St. Johns Bluff, located six miles upriver from the ocean. At sixty feet, the mound of sand and shell hardly qualifies as a bluff, yet it is the highest point in Duval County, and its most important historic site. Much of the land Hester acquired in 1768 is now owned by the National Park Service, which maintains a replica of Fort Caroline at the western boundary of the property. Built by French settlers in 1564, Fort Caroline was the first European settlement in North America. It was captured by Spanish soldiers in 1565.

The 300-acre tract granted to William Hester in 1764 is today the site of Fort Caroline, a National Park Service property, and a residential neighborhood known as St. Johns Bluff. The recreation of Fort Caroline is in the foreground on this photograph, and the first wharf belongs to the National Park Service. Between here and the bluff, St. Johns Town was developed in 1782 to accommodate the flood of Loyalist refugees who arrived from Georgia and South Carolina.

In 1766, unaware of the former French occupation of the site, John Bartram noticed the potential of the bluff for defense of the upriver settlements, calling it "an exceeding convenient situation for the building of a fort to secure the inhabitants up the river in time of war." Confederate and Union forces must have agreed with Bartram; they contended for the bluff in 1862 during the American Civil War. In 1898, American engineers installed artillery on the bluff during the Spanish American War.

The defensive potential of the bluff can be judged from this view. Colorinda Creek runs at the base of St. Johns Bluff as it faces generally east toward the merger of the St. Johns River and the Atlantic Ocean. The sand spill area on the left did not exist during the British years; it has recently been created by the Coast Guard as a byproduct of dredging to deepen the river channel. The area was a vast marshland before, part of Chicopit Bay, providing a clear view of all river traffic.

William Hester had little interest in defense installations; he acquired the 300-acre hillside property to cultivate provisions and indigo. He also built several dwellings but soon discovered the value of the property derived from its location on the principal waterway in the province. Because it was situated near the mouth of the St. Johns River and the entrance to the Inland Passage to the St. Marys River, all commercial shipping on the St. Johns River had to pass by Hester's Bluff where anchorage and desirable wooded building lots were available. In 1772, prompted by increasing river traffic, Hester hired a surveyor to lay out roads and lots for a township. After Hester died in 1773, his son, Jesse Hester, operated it as a farm and sold a small number of building lots.

St. Johns Town

In May 1782, the bluff property was purchased by Thomas Williamson, an inhabitant of East Florida for seventeen years prior to cession of the province to Spain. Williamson was aware that thousands of refugees would soon arrive in East Florida after British Loyalists were evacuated from Savannah and Charleston and intended to profit from a resultant rise in land prices. He changed the name from Hester's Bluff to St. Johns Town and platted roads and 230 residential and commercial building lots. With the exception of two large lots measuring 200-square feet, lots measured 75 by 120-feet. Dozens of lots were sold to innkeepers, shipbuilders, merchants and settlers, most of the latter refugees from Georgia and South Carolina. More than one hundred dwellings were built (the estimates vary from one to three hundred), along with inns, taverns, a ship yard, a blacksmith's shop and other conveniences sought by travelers on the river. Almost overnight, St. Johns Town became the second most populous town in the province.

On the hillside facing the river Williamson built two dwelling houses of timber, each being two-stories high with garrets and cellars. He also purchased 223 acres of land adjoining the town, forty of which were cleared and planted. In 1784, Williamson dismantled his personal dwelling, loaded it on barges and rafted it to the St. Marys River, from where it was shipped to Jamaica and sold for £172. The disgruntled former town-builder told the East Florida Claims Commission that the sale was the "sole satisfaction or compensation" he received for his losses.

John Russell, a resident of the town who migrated to New Providence in 1784, testified that prior to the cession "the Town was in a very flourishing way, convenient for trade, and, from the extent of the river traffic must have become a Town of great consequence to the Country in a short time." Russell purchased two lots in the town but later returned them to Williamson and moved to an adjoining twenty-nine acres to build a house and to log the live oak on the property for sale to shipbuilders in the vicinity. In addition to the dwelling house, Russell's enslaved laborers built houses for themselves, a kitchen, two storage buildings, blacksmith shop, saw pits, and a garden. To "enhance his business," a canal was dug eastward to his property line at "Panton's Creek" (possibly Sawmill Creek today), which joined with the St. Johns River. Two other former residents of the town, Daniel Sinclair and George Miller, agreed with Russell's testimony. They also praised the valuable live oak timber that grew on the property and said that Williamson, who was also a ship builder, built a vessel from timber on the land. Sinclair remembered more than one hundred houses that were standing in the town when he last viewed it, and said that many more would have been built if Britain had not ceded the province to Spain. Sinclair lived at a lot on the East side of Broad Street that accommodated his house and his blacksmith shop.

William Russell came to St. Johns Town after evacuating Charleston. Russell was a vendue master (auctioneer) and owner of a retail store where he sold lumber and naval stores, supplying new settlers with much needed shingles and boards for their houses. Russell rented land in East Florida and polanned to stay in the province for at least seven years, but he instead decided to depart after the Spanish arrived. During the upheaval following cession of the province, two of Russell's male slaves, one a cooper and the other a carpenter, absconded. In 1785, three rafts of lumber, each holding about 3000 board-feet of lumber, and a parcel of shingles, were swept away by high tides.

George Talleck, a ship carpenter, spent several years at St. John Bluff. He had a lot and dwelling, a separate kitchen house, and other improvements. He also secured an outlet in the market on the bay which he found to be convenient for trade.

William Lyman, a shipwright who arrived at St. Johns Town with a one-deck sloop of twenty-six tons, practiced his craft at the town. He and his partner, William Hendricks, cut timber in the forests near St. Johns Town to fashion their vessels. At the time of evacuation, they were forced to leave a partially built schooner on the stocks.

The wealthy South Carolina refugee, Colonel Elias Ball, purchased two lots at St. Johns Town, and was in the process of building a dwelling when the province was ceded to Spain. Ball left the frame of the house with Williamson as payment for the lots and sailed for London.

Arthur Ashworth came to East Florida from Georgia. In his haste to flee he left behind six horses, seven cattle, a cart, grits mill, two saddles and furniture. Subsequently, he was wounded and left permanently lame while fighting for the Crown as a member the East Florida militia. He settled at St. John Town on a lot with a small house already standing. When he departed for Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1784 he was considered "a cripple" from the war wound, and was again forced to abandon uncompensated property, this time three horses and a boat.

In December 1782 Hugh Rose arrived at St. Johns Town from Charleston and purchased a large water lot from Williamson. The lot bounded Bay Street on the north and Queen Street on the east. Rose's neighbors on the south and west were Charles Barnett, and Messrs. Whitehall and Johnson.

Daniel Mackisek came to East Florida in 1782, bought a lot in St. Johns Town and built a house. He also was given a 300-acre refugee tract near the town where he built another house, cleared nine acres and raised a crop. At evacuation of the province Mackisek was unable to find a buyer and abandoned his dwelling in St. Johns Town along with his rural houses, land, and two boats.

Robert Grimes was a carpenter by trade who moved from Liverpool, England to Charleston in 1758. As the war was drawing to a close and the American victory appeared imminent, Grimes moved south to British East Florida and bought a town lot in St. Johns Town. He worked to build a dwelling with fellow carpenter Mathew Creed. Only one year later, in 1784, Grimes moved again to avoid living under Spanish rule. This time he went north to Nova Scotia to settle at Three Fathom Harbour.

Walter Brown purchased town lot number one at Hester's Bluff from Mr. Edward Corbet. It was a 100-square-foot lot bounding north on the bluff, east on a lot belonging to Major Gabriel Capers, south on Bay Street and west on Orange Street. Brown purchased a second lot with a house and kitchen house from John Gaillard. The latter property was described as "situated in a public and convenient place for trade." Brown, a refugee who arrived in East Florida in 1776, engaged in the lumber business while at St. Johns Town. In 1784 he migrated to Great Exuma Island to become a cotton planter.

Jane Henderson, an elderly widow whose husband, Arthur Henderson, died during the war, came to St. Johns Bluff in 1782 from Charleston. In a request for compensation filed at Shelburne, Nova Scotia in 1789, she said the rebellion had reduced her to a "lone, helpless, aged & distressed woman.

Patrick Licetti (sometimes Lysett), a native of Ireland, settled briefly at St. Marys River following the evacuation of Charleston. Licetti was forced to move away from the St. Marys River to escape plundering raids by bandits in the area. He settled next in St. Johns Town and purchased two lots with already standing houses. While in the town, one of Liceetti's male slaves "left his service and ran away to the Spaniards," and six of his hogs ran away as well, escaping into the woods. His occupation was not given, but it appears that he was a small farmer. Licetti left East Florida for England after the Spanish resumed control of the province.

Robert Murphy, a plantation owner and merchant in South Carolina before the war, fought for His Majesty until being taken prisoner and sentenced to death. He managed to be released and returned to Charleston, only to be evacuated with his family in 1782 to St. Johns Town. He purchased a lot and dwelling, and established a mercantile store on Water Street that cleared £200 Sterling in both 1783 and 1784. Murphy's store was built with a stone foundation on footings in the water at his wharf, which he said facilitated loading and unloading his trade goods. Murphy's business was lost when most of the St. Johns Bluff residents evacuated the town in 1784, and he soon fell ill and died.

William Young came to St. Johns Town from Charleston in 1782. He acquired a lot and dwelling in the town and a 500-acre tract at nearby Pablo River, where six dwellings were constructed for his eight slaves. The tract at the river was described as timbered with cypress, cedar, red and white oak, and live oak. Young's slaves cultivated rice and provisions crops until the evacuation of British residents from East Florida in 1784. Just prior to departure Young lost "six valuable Negroes, two being tradesman, one a cooper, one a carpenter, the whole American born; one of the men lost in the latter end of the year 1783 and the other five at the period of embarkation, when he also lost a valuable young horse which [he] was obliged to leave at St. Marys, for want of transportation." Young returned to London.

George Miller resided at St. Johns Town and also owned a 200-acre tract of land within two miles of St. Johns Town. Seventy acres of that tract was cleared and planted in provisions by his forty-three slaves. The rest of his land was used for naval stores production. In his claims for losses submitted to Parliament, Miller said he lost twenty-five barrels of turpentine, a tar kiln, 25,000 pine trees boxed for turpentine, and enough wooden staves to make 500 barrels. When Miller departed the province he lost all of the above property, included the enslaved human property, for a total loss of 3107 British pounds sterling.

Other residents of the town.

Arthur Ashworth, from North Carolina, an ex-soldier, possibly a miller. Ashworth lived with Mathew Martin, owned a lot and house, 3 horses, a boat, and a mill.

David Austin, born in Britain, was a mariner. A bachelor, Austin owned a lot and house.

Thomas Barker was a Carpenter.

Charles Barnett bought a town lot on the bluff.

Peter Brown, a Scot-born ship carpenter and mariner, with a wife named Mary, owned a lot with a house and outbuildings.

Micajah Colle, a mariner from Virginia. Colle was a widower.

Jacob Colliday, a wheelwright born in Philadelphia, brought a wife and five children to St. Johns Town.

Thomas Commander, a planter from Charles Town, rented a house and lot from George Fardo.

Edward Corbett, a refugee from Charles Town Town, purchased a lot in St. Johns Town.

Maria Douglas, a widower from South Carolina with a son, owned two cows and a calf and resided at the bluff town.

Moses Downer, a Loyalist from South Carolina, came to St. Johns Town with a A wife

Susana Felts, a refugee widow from South Carolina, lived at St. Johns Town with four children, three horses, and one slave.

Stephen Files, born in Britain, was a bachelor storekeeper at St. Johns Town, ownere of a lot and house.

Jesse Gray, from Charles Town, resided at the bluff on a lot and good house, and owned one stud horse.

John Peter Guenand, a gardener born in Geneva, Switzerland, owned a lot and house in St. Johns Town. Guenand lived with a wife and two children.

John Guillard, Esq. owned a lot and house at St. Johns Town.

John Haley, a St. Augustine merchant, leased a lot from Williamson, probably intending to capitalize on commercial possibilities at the town after the refugees from South Carolina and Georgia arrived in 1782.

John Harris, a refugee from Charles Town, operated a butcher shop beginning in 1780.

John Hopkins, a native of Britain and a ship captain, brought his wife Mary and two sons to a house and lot he purchased at St. Johns Town. Hopkins also owned eight slaves and a cow.

Abraham Howard, a bachelor farmer from Virginia purchased a lot at the bluff.

Thomas Hulint, a bachelor farmer from North Carolina lived in a house at St. Johns Town.

John Johnson, a native of Scotland who ran a pub and inn in St. Augustine, set up a mercantile operation with John Michel, a bachelor who lived in a house in the town.

Jacob Jones, a Virginia-born farmer with a family, lived in a house in the town.

Benjam Legge, a bachelor storekeeper from South Carolina, lived in a house in the town.

Edward Legge, a native of Britain and a bachelor, owned a lot and house in the town.

Lewis Lowery, a bachelor from Virginia, lived at a house on a lot in the town, and operated a 200-acre farm nearby on the St. Johns River. Lowery also owned two horses.

Archibald MacKay of Cumberland County, North Carolina, and a former British soldier, owned a lot and house on the bluff.

Daniel Mackisek, a refugee from South Carolina who had been a prisoner at Kettle Creek, brought a family to a house at St. Johns Town. Mackisek farmed on a 300-acre grant of land located near the bluff.

John McDonald had a house at St. Johns Bluff. He also built a Freemason’s Lodge.

Richard Miller, born in Britain, brought a wife and son to a small house at St. Johns Town, He cleared a one-half acre provisions field nearby.

Michael Milton, bachelor from South Carolina, purchased a lot and house in the town. Milton also owned two slaves and three horses.

Hugh Moore, a refugee from Georgia who had served in the King’s Rangers, bought a lot and house in the town.

Jacob More, a blacksmith from Georgia, lived with a wife and children in a house at St. Johns Town.More owned six slaves and two horses.

John Morris, a native of Scotland and a bachelor merchant, rented a house and store in the plaza at St. Johns Town. He owned four slaves and three horses.

Alexander Morrison, a planter from Charles Town, lived at a house on a town lot at the bluff and farmed at islands he acquired upriver from Hester’s Bluff.

David Moses, a merchant in St. Augustine for nearly two decades, also acquired two lots of land at St. Johns Town.

Tamer Oaets, a refugee from Georgia, lived at St. Johns Town with nine slaves.

William Oates, a refugee from North Carolina, ran a dry-goods and rum store at St. Johns Town. He lived in town with a wife, two daughters, and five slaves.

Jacinto Pau, a native of Minorca and former indentured laborer at Dr. Andrew Turnbull's settlement at New Smyrna, lived at St. Johns Town with his aunt. Pau was a blacksmith and a mariner.

Hugh Rose, a prominent physician at Charles Town who evacuated to St. Johns Town, acquired a bay lot and house, with a garden and well.

Daniel Sinclair, a blacksmith, acquired a corner lot with a house and blacksmith shop, along with a fenced-in-garden.

Henry Smith, a bachelor farmer from South Carolina lived in the town.

William Smith, a silversmith from North Carolina, lived in a house without grounds with his wife and son.

John Smylie, a Scot-born trader, lived with "Mr. MacKay" in a house and grounds that was also “occupied by His Majesty’s detachment.”

Daniel Sullivan, born in Ireland, worked as a bachelor tailor at the bluff settlement.

John Ward, native of Britain, a bachelor living in a house at St. Johns Town, worked in naval stores. At evacuation he lost 200 barrels of turpentine and and a supply of rosin.

Nicholas Welsh, a planter originally from New York, came to a house in St. Johns Town a widower with six children. Welsh owned nine slaves, a lot with a warehouse, and tools and cattle. He also received a 500-acre grant from Governor Patrick Tonyn.

John Whaley, a refugee from South Carolina. acquired a house and grounds at the bluff settlement. He was a bachelor farmer.

Henry White, a ship carpenter from Nova Scotia, acquired a house and grounds at St. Johns Town.

Jacob White, a tailor from North Carolina with a wife and children, acquired a house and lot at St. Johns Town. He also owned two slaves.

Stephen White, born in Ireland, brought a wife and son to St. Johns Town. White was a trader and owned slaves and horses. At the bluff settlement he owned a house and grounds, and a store and kitchen.

Other residents of St. Johns Town were Mason Armbrister, John Bullard, Edward and Isaac Gray, , Jane Henderson, Thomas Rigby, Thomas Taylor. The list is not comprehensive.

Bibliographic Information

A Note On Sources

T77/18/18-Thomas Williamson.